Taiwan Leader’s Legacy and Hong Kong

Lee Teng-hui fostered democracy that Hong Kong yearns for

It was a poignant comment on Chinese history: former Taiwan president Lee Teng-hui, who has died at 97, succumbed on the same day as in Hong Kong 12 pro-democracy candidates were barred from running in legislative elections due in September.

Those elections may not happen anyway as the Hong Kong government, knowing just how unpopular it is, is considering postponing them for a year, using the Covid-19 epidemic as cover. It has sought the “advice” of China’s National Peoples Congress on this point.

Given that there may be no election anyway, the need for wholesale rejection of candidates on grounds of not supporting the Basic Law or for having sought foreign support for democracy in Hong Kong was curious. But it was evidence of just how far the administration of chief executive Carrie Lam would go in bowing to Beijing’s demands to snuff out all and any democratic and liberal spirations in the territory.

The same day, the Hong Kong police, now little more than an arm of the mainland authorities, used the newly imposed National Security Law to arrest young people for Facebook posts about hope for Hong Kong’s autonomy and separate status. The arrestees may have been young and foolish but to have to use the National Security Law, against which there is no appeal to Hong Kong courts, indicated that paranoia in Beijing about foreign threats has reached levels not seen since the Cultural Revolution in 1967.

That Taiwan enjoys the freedoms which now make it unique in the Sinosphere owes much to Lee. So too does the emergence of a Taiwanese identity reflecting the history and culture of the majority of the island’s people – a Chinese cultural identity interwoven with influences from the indigenous people who owned the islands before the coming of the Chinese, plus the legacies of Japanese rule in 1945, and orthodox mainland KMT rule until the advent of Lee in 1988.

The Taiwan-born, Japanese and later US-educated Lee had been chosen as vice-president by Chiang Ching-kuo, son of Chiang Kai-chek who succeeded to the presidency on his father’s death in 1975. Ching-kuo began the very gradual process of dismantling his father’s authoritarian rule and the KMT dominance of the bureaucracy and state enterprises. In an effort to woo the Taiwanese majority by advancing KMT members of Taiwanese origin, who resented mainlander dominance in 1984 he appointed Lee, who had earlier served as minister of agriculture, as vice-president.

Lee gradually speeded up the liberalization process, promising progress to full democracy though needing to outmaneuver old-guard KMT leaders who viewed him with suspicion.

The process culminated in the 1996 presidential election, the first fully democratic one, which he won with 54 percent of the vote against three candidates. His presidency continued to advance Taiwanese interests and in the 2000 election the independence-minded Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party beat the KMT candidate.

Lee was blamed for the KMT loss and after endorsing the Taiwan Solidarity Union, a pro-Green Taiwanese group, was expelled from the KMT. Subsequently, he was equivocal in his support for Taiwanese independence, suggesting the indeterminate status-quo was acceptable. But he never wavered in his belief in the merits of liberal democracy to which he had contributed so much.

That now faces not just the destruction of freedom of speech and assembly in Hong Kong. Taiwan itself is now faced with greater hostility from the mainland than at any time since Mao planned, but had to call off, an invasion in 1949.

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